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How the Scott County, Indiana, Needle Exchange Program Works

Ja'Nel Johnson

The local health department in the Southern Indiana community battling an HIV outbreak has handed out thousands of needles to residents since an exchange program went into effect April 4.

As of Tuesday, 95 visitors brought in 3,111 needles and received 4,337 in exchange, said Brittany Combs, a nurse with the Scott County Public Health.

During a media tour Tuesday of the Community Outreach Center in Austin, Indiana, Combs explained how the program works.

For example, there's a process for determining the number of needles given to each visitor.

"We asked them how many times per day they normally inject and then we multiply that by seven—so that we give them enough clean needles to last a week," she said.

Austin, population 4,300, is the epicenter of an HIV outbreak linked to intravenous drug use.

A focus group helped the health department to develop the program and to provide answers for questions about users' habits. It was found that some intravenous drug users have been known to use the same needle as much as 300 time, she said.

Another finding: When officials began they had "no idea" what kind of needles IV drug users preferred.

"They like the tuberculin syringes," Combs said. "They like the hundred units. They want a permanent tip and the gauge of the needle they want it to be a 28 or 29."

She said the health department staff hopes participants return weekly for substance abuse treatment education and risk reduction counseling.

Users have expressed concerns about police arresting them for having drug paraphernalia they've gotten through the program—despite Gov. Mike Pence's temporary order allowing the needle exchange program to exist. The health department has developed a process for addressing those worries.

Each person who comes to the needle exchange is given a unique identifier card, which consist of the first and third letter of their first name, the first and third letter of their last name, their date of birth and the number one if they are male and the number two if they are female.

"If they get stopped by the police or questioned by anyone all they have to do is show that card and then they know that they're in the program and safe to have those needles," Combs said.

Austin Police Chief Donald Spicer said officers are adapting to the current provisions for the needle exchange.

"Laws change every year and we have to adapt to what's going on. We know it's a temporary thing but we know when this is all over we have to go back to the way it was," he said.

But some in the community think the needle exchange is a way to track intravenous drug users and eventually turn them in to the police, Combs said.Those ideas are simply rumors.

"There's absolutely no way we could do that," she said.

Pence recently extended his executive order legalizing a temporary needle exchange program in the county.

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